UK & World News
Berlusconi Faces Revolt In Confidence Vote
European leaders are watching nervously as Italy's government faces a confidence vote which could trigger fresh instability in the debt-wracked country.
At the weekend, Silvio Berlusconi ordered five ministers, drawn from his centre-right People of Freedom party (PdL), to resign from the cabinet, prompting a constitutional crisis.
Since inconclusive elections in February, Italy has been run by an unusual left-right coalition, headed by the centre-left Democratic Party leader Enrico Letta.
Prime Minister Letta has a majority in the lower house but has relied on the PdL in the Senate to reach a workable government majority.
Berlusconi detonated his political bomb as he prepares to face a vote to strip him of his seat in the upper house after Italy's highest appeal court upheld his conviction for tax fraud.
If the 77-year-old media billionaire is booted out of the Senate, he would lose immunity from prosecution in a number of other cases currently moving through the Italian court system.
But there are signs some within his own party are tiring of his relentless legal difficulties and may vote to support the current government.
Fabrizio Cicchitto, a leading PdL politician, was quoted in the influential La Repubblica newspaper as saying: "Making the government fall would be a mistake."
Analysts believe a victory for Mr Letta could still create difficulties, with the PdL moving out of government to head a large opposition bloc, backed by the firepower of Berlusconi's sizeable media empire.
Alternatively, if the government loses the vote, fresh elections would be inevitable - but again, there is no certainty any party would emerge as a clear winner.
Italy is the Eurozone's third largest economy and is struggling with low growth, high unemployment - rising to 12.2% in August and 40% among the young - and worrying levels of private and public debt.
As a result, Italy is finding it more expensive to borrow money to pay its bills. Further uncertainty could drive costs still higher, further inflaming Europe's sovereign debt crisis.
Mr Letta has built on the work of his technocratic predecessor Mario Monti by trying to increase tax revenues and cut government bloat, and has received tacit support from other Eurozone governments and EU institutions.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, fresh from her own electoral endorsement, rang Mr Letta to say she hopes political stability will return to Italy and that the reform programme will continue.
With the Eurozone finally emerging from recession, the threat of more market turmoil is extremely unwelcome.
There is another, more optimistic, view.
Some suggest this latest crisis could precipitate the end of Berlusconi's 20-year dominance in Italian politics which, in turn, may usher in a calmer, less confrontational - albeit less colourful - period.
That would cheer many in Brussels and beyond.